Understanding how the brain learns is a complex undertaking. There are billions of neurons in the mind that signal each other furiously every day. Memories are being made, information is being processed, and it's a communication network that's vast and not well understood.
Neurons are connected via synapses, which are intersections that allow a chemical or electrical signal to go from place to place in the brain. Some of these links are stronger than others, and when they are disrupted, either by injury or illness, learning is affected.
While it's normally neuroscientists that investigate questions about the brain, physicists are getting into the field as well. Recently, Israeli physicists led by Prof. Ido Kanter, of the Department of Physics and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, published a study where they suggest that learning in the brain happens in neuronal terminals (dendrites) which contradicts the long-held theory of Hebbian learning that says knowledge is acquired in the synapses that connect the neurons. The team at Bar Ilan dubbed their theory "dendritic learning."
The strength of the links that form the synapses is a significant part of the research. Professor Kanter explained, "A byproduct of dendritic learning is the wide spectrum of link strengths. The dendritic learning enables us to offer an explanation for an additional universal phenomenon observed in all brains and indicates its important role. The mechanism is similar to a pool filled through a wide pipe or through a narrow one. The wide pipe fills the pool faster."
Learning would naturally seem to happen more efficiently in stronger links, but the brain is "dynamic" according to the team in Israel. Strong ties can weaken, weaker links can become stronger. This is why when we struggle to solve a complex problem, we might not come up with a solution right away, but the communication in the brain shifts, and then an idea can come about, seemingly out of nowhere, but, in reality it's the brain's plasticity at work, finding a way to work out complex concepts.
The theory behind dendritic learning is that the brain is somewhat like a road map, with a few small streets and lanes as well as superhighways where traffic moves at high speeds. The researchers hope that their discovery will lead to ways of teaching and learning that will maximize the brain's incredible potential. While we might all think differently, and learn differently, dendritic learning suggests that every mind looks the same, in that the network is there, with a "wide spectrum of links" that process information. Check out the video below to learn more about the work and how a commonly accepted theory of learning is now being challenged.